Over the past few years, there has been a growing visibility of transgender individuals across our society, and an increasing recognition that, for many people, gender identity is more complicated and ambiguous than was once commonly believed to be the case. As a result, many organizations—from the U.S. military to the International Olympic Committee—are grappling with the implications of unraveling gender distinctions that in an earlier time were considered absolute. For women’s colleges like Barnard, these questions are particularly profound. Because we are women’s colleges, after all, dedicated both philosophically and legally to educating only women. Federal law permits us to discriminate in admissions on the basis of sex, and we do. We do not accept men for admission. At Barnard, we have no formal policy addressing transgender applicants because, until recently, we hadn’t seen the need for one. Instead, our longtime practice has been to review each application individually, and to admit only students who identify, in the traditional sense, as women.
With changes afoot all around, however, and a mission that requires us to “address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency,” the time has come for us to examine how we, as a women’s college, define “women,” and how, consequently, we both admit and graduate students. To this end, the Board of Trustees has engaged in a series of conversations over the past few months, seeking to learn as much as possible about this complex set of issues. At the same time, members of our senior staff have been exploring the implications of any potential policy change, ranging from legal issues to those affecting campus life.
In December, the Board of Trustees met on campus, and the Committee on Campus Life, cochaired by trustees Diana Vagelos ’55 and Frances Sadler ’72, convened to discuss transgender policy, and to hear from various experts on the topic. The committee reported its conversations to the full board, and intends to meet for further discussions in March. Barring unforeseen circumstances, our goal is to formalize any changes to our admissions policy by June of this year.
In the meantime, and to further inform the board’s deliberations, we are reaching out as widely as we can to all members of our community, asking for their thoughts and feedback.We have made available an online survey form that, as of early January, had generated over 400 very thoughtful responses.We will be holding a series of town- hall meetings early in the spring semester, open to parents, students, staff, faculty, and alumnae, and convening an online gathering for alumnae around the world. As this page goes to press, we are still in the early days of these conversations, but I have been moved and impressed by how many of our students and alumnae have already communicated their thoughts, and by the depth of intellect and consideration they reveal.
There is no consensus in our community around this complex issue, or even a particularly well-delineated line of division. Indeed, reading through the responses to our survey, I was struck by the exceedingly broad range of opinions, from those who insist that Barnard should admit and graduate only those who are born and identify as women, to those who feel equally strongly that the College should admit and graduate any individual who identifies either as a woman or as a member of a gender-oppressed minority. This is a tough line to straddle, and I suspect that we will not succeed in satisfying all the members of our diverse community. At the same time, though, reading these responses also reminded me of how deeply the members of our community care about this College, and how committed they are to engaging in tough and important conversations. Many of the respondents— from the Class of 1950 to the Class of 2018—wrote of working to educate themselves about transgender issues. Many described, quite movingly, how exposure to transmen or transwomen among their classmates or friends or family members had changed their own perceptions. And nearly everyone wrote of the importance of maintaining Barnard as a special place, a unique place, a place in which women, for over 125 years, have found their voices and given birth to their dreams. Or, as one alumna wrote, “Barnard stands for—and has always stood for—encouraging progress in women’s rights and gender equality.”
I do not yet know precisely how our discussions will evolve over the next few months, or how women’s colleges in general will, or should, consider the presence of transmen and transwomen on what have long been conceived as women- only campuses. I do not know—nor does anyone, I suspect—how the legal system in this country will ultimately view the status of gender-nonconforming students at single-sex colleges. But I have confidence in two things. As we discuss the issue of trans students on campus, Barnard will have the kind of conversation—serious, informed, inclusive, and respectful—that honors our history and our deep-seated commitment to social justice and women’s empowerment. And we will eventually arrive at a policy that helps us build and maintain the kind of College we all want to see; a College that continues to celebrate women, and educate women, and pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in our world.
This President’s Page borrows from, and updates, a communication sent by President Spar to all members of the Barnard community on December 11, 2014.
—By Debora Spar
—Photograph by Steve DeCanio